Re-Thinking Communication on Complex Projects Part 1

Since the initial Chaos studies by the Standish Group in 1995, the industry has been trying to resolve the
high failure rates of projects. Since most organizations trying to address the problem were associated
with project management, improvements were recommended in the entire project environment with a
high-level of emphasis on the project manager to ensure the right conditions exist. In 1995, when I
reviewed the results of the Chaos study and the many lessons learned published from industry sources, I
created a term I called “Informed Misperception.” Today, I still believe that this one factor is the root of
many project problems.

What is Informed Misperception (IM) and what causes it?

Just think about how many messages you interpret from others in a given day. Now recall how many of
these may have had a misinterpretation at first that needed to be clarified and explained. This is a
natural phenomenon of communication. In projects, communication between some parties needs to be
complete and precise. Rarely, however, do individuals feel like they have the time to get to complete
and precise communication on many points that matter. In fact, there are many conditions that worsen
the actual level of completeness or precision each individual delivers.
Consider the following conditions:

 A technology designer is in a meeting to communicate design.

1. The design individual’s supervisor or lead is not in the meeting.
2. Few, if any, peers exist for interpretation of the design.
3. Parties that have to use the design to complete implementation are present.
4. There are many individuals in the meeting.
5. The design individual is remote and the meeting is a virtual session.
6. The meeting is scheduled for an hour.
7. The content of the design took over 3 weeks to define.
8. The documentation for the design is not detailed.
9. The design individual is a contracted staff member of the implementation vendor.
10. The business users are present; they intend to ensure their requirements would be met
with the design.

While the list of conditions could expand from the list above, the intent of this document is to explain
enough of the problem to recommend a solution.
What is the potential impact for each of these conditions?
For the numbered items above, here is a brief explanation of only one or two scenarios with each that
could lead to misperception. Note that in all cases, the design individual is likely not trying to be vague
or uncooperative; however, when time is short and demands are high, the level of stress for an
individual can build to a level that requires a relief valve to open – more on this after the explanations
for each condition.

1. The design individual’s supervisor or lead is not in the meeting: when technical supervision is not
present, there is a chance that the individual’s design is not an internally approved design nor that
the formal process for design has been followed. This may have no bearing on the quality of the
design; however, systemically unsupervised design tends to be less focused on what the end system

needs to do and is more focused on technical accuracy. This means the system could be doing the
wrong thing very well. Lapses in supervision have been known to drive poor design or
implementation since the individuals can mean to do the right thing, but have less incentive to
check their own work.

2. Few, if any, peers exist for interpretation of the design: when individuals available to receive or
interpret design, if their skill level for the kind of design being presented is low, the design individual
should try to alter the presentation to explain not only what the design is, but why the design is like
it is. This is to help participants to understand how the design allows the implementation to achieve
what the business needs. Of course, this takes additional time, and most individuals will have the
pressure of time constraints that would lead to short-cuts in explanations. This is a dangerous
situation if you have less than adequate design resources. Knowing that the participants are not
able to interpret the design, the explanations can be vague and the answers to questions can also be
vague and superficial so that the details will always have to come later (or perhaps never). Even if
the designer is excellent, they might not understand the business enough to consider some aspect
of design that should have been incorporated. Due to time constraints, the details are often left for
later discussions for which there seems never to be enough time.

3. Parties that have to use the design to complete implementation are present: while this is a very
good practice, the more parties in the room can mean that the people who really need to
understand the details of the design might not have enough time to get what they need. Formal
meetings hinder the right kind of progress, at times. When the details are discussed and questioned
(is this what you mean, is that what you mean) someone very familiar with the business needs to
ensure that the business intent is still going to work with the details that are being clarified. This
level of clarification rarely takes place, but is the most essential. If business users review
implementation every two weeks and get to adjust the functionality to their needs, this might not
be a problem. If the design is followed with many months of implementation prior to business
review, there is a lot more risk that the design, as implemented, won’t do what the business needs.
In public, formal meetings, when detailed questions of the design may not have answers, the actual
answer can be vague. Implementers start to make assumptions and add details they believe are
accurate to which an incomplete designer could respond a simple “yes.”

4. There are many individuals in the meeting: again, as the meeting grows in participation, the time
becomes less to address all concerns or clarification needs. The conversation tends to elevate to a
higher level to complete all conversations at one level that would never provide the details
necessary to truly interpret completely. The designer also may not get the feedback required to
ensure the design can be adjusted, where needed. The higher level of individuals in the meeting or
design session can also imply that other organizations are trying to cover their responsibilities
through participation. Coupled with other of these conditions, all individuals will tend to say enough
to ensure their point was heard or documented, yet often is insufficient to convey all of the meaning
since there might be objections individuals do not want to address in this large of a meeting. This
can lead to much more ambiguity.

5. The design individual is remote and the meeting is a virtual session: virtual meetings make
communication much more difficult. It is bad enough with language barriers and then the tendency
to be more vague to avoid questions, and other techniques identified here; but, with virtual
participation, the body language (over 80% of true communication) is missed and participants don’t
feel the connection. Often virtual participants begin to do other work and are truly just “phoning it
in” for that session.

6. The meeting is scheduled for an hour: most meetings are scheduled in a way that often does not
consider what is to be reviewed. An hour can easily be wasted with meaningless, high-level
discussions. For design details, it is best to isolate a particular area and to set a time appropriate for
that area. 20-40 minutes is recommended due to adult attention span issues. Small groups that
understand the area under discussion (from the business and technical perspective).

7. The content of the design took over 3 weeks to define: there could be a lot of information that
needs to be communicated. Since even an hour can be challenging to allow for attention span,
many meetings may be needed to clarify what the design means. If many people are involved, the
time required will increase which indicates a need for limiting detail or taking other short cuts to get
through the reviews. It is better to review in short increments than to try to complete an entire
design and try to get all of it approved at once. At that point, the detail will likely have difficulty to
get the attention needed.

8. The documentation for the design is not detailed: more and more designs are relegated to user
mock-ups or wire frames with little consideration for the detailed handling of states or data behind
the scenes. If the details are not available, those who implement will make up their own mind and
even greater communication with the business will be required. Expect many changes if review and
update cycles are short. Expect an insurmountable set of changes if review cycles are long and
following significant implementation. Talking about design with little detail in writing, diagrams, or
other representations can be very misleading. Discussions could be endless and this actually causes
individuals to start agreeing to everything, whether right or wrong, just to get out of the meeting.

9. The design individual is a contracted staff member of the implementation vendor: some contract
professionals are highly responsible to get everything right. Some tailor their effort to the vendor
oversight and do what is necessary to get paid. The days where all participants were employees and
where employees were really concerned with corporate performance or reputation are gone. If the
people you are dealing with have less than adequate integrity, you might never know it until it is too
late. Test their ability to make things right to see what you are dealing with.
10. The business users are present; they intend to ensure their requirements would be met with the
design: this condition is generally a great step to take to ensure that the end product will meet
expectations. If this level of understanding is possible, it is more likely in smaller increments and
should be immediately followed by implementation since the gap in understanding between design
and implementation could be wide. Still, business needs and designs may seem aligned when they
are not. The explanations to show how the design will result in delivering the business needs should
take place. This level of discussion becomes, again, burdensome and not possible in a single
meeting for a large design.

In all, you may begin to understand that the level of detail required at implementation level needs to be
crystal clear and validated quickly. The Informed Misperception term was coined for all cases where the
details become a little too burdensome to explain. The design individual will claim to have informed all
parties in the sessions; yet, the level of true understanding was never achieved and the greater detail
with understanding might never have even been attempted. I have yet to see a technology
implementation project where this does not happen.

Are you Agile, or Fragile?

Many organizations are transitioning to Agile as their preferred lifecycle model for software development.  Transitions were directed due to inability for former methods to lead to successful results.  After being brought in to help manage a portfolio of projects in several organizations, there were some disturbing trends when using Agile:

  • Software was delivered, but the users found the software to be unusable.
  • Consultants developed the software, then left. The organization staff had no idea how to maintain the software.
  • A number of application projects were completed. Each had a different architecture and set of tools required to build and maintain the application.
  • Projects were being reported to governance teams with scheduled dates, yet there were no apparent requirements, use cases, user stories, backlog or other lists that might indicate what is being built.
  • Management was completely at a loss about how to resource projects since many seemed to be ongoing forever without completion.

There were some exceptions; however, the preponderance of software development initiatives that succeeded were very small in scope and constituted a low percentage of overall projects required for customers.  There was some information available within the organizations that indicated a process was initiated to convert from a traditional (Waterfall) lifecycle to the Agile lifecycle.  Many of the benefits of Agile, however, were not being demonstrated by the activity taking place.  What happened?

Read More Are you Agile, or Fragile?

Myths about the role of the Scrum Master

Myth: The Scrum Master is just another way of saying Project Manager

Not only do both roles do completely different things, but generally a Project Manager has a hierarchical role above the team, something that is not true of a Scrum Master.

Myth: The Scrum Master is the leader of the Scrum Team

The Scrum Master is not a Project Manager and does not have a higher role than the Scrum Team than the rest of the team.  This is a common myth that can lead to disaster when adopting Scrum.   It is human nature to look for someone to lead a group.  Scrum teams are self-managed and decide how they are going to work and what rules (in addition to those imposed by Scrum) will be established.

Read More Myths about the role of the Scrum Master

The basic steps to success that project managers often overlook

Many State government entities operate through a complex organizational structure with multiple interrelated divisions and organizations. To see their goals achieved and policies adopted, their initiatives need to be supported by diverse groups. When initiatives and projects are just beginning, ambiguity is often an asset during that time. However, it is incompatible with the clarity required to see government transform the way it works.
Read More The basic steps to success that project managers often overlook